Thursday, 19 January 2017

Review Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice
by Roland Schimmelpfennig
Translated by David Tushingham

A Suitable Case For Treatment

May you live, so the Chinese saying goes, in interesting times.  Brexit, Donald Trump, a pensions' crisis, an oil and gas conundrum, a network of global and individual loans and debts, currency speculation, a housing crisis, an exploding population, an ever-expanding media bubble, constant conflict.

Except it's all a load of tripe. Not the pensions, the conflicts, the currency, the loans. As far as we know, they exist. No, there is no such Chinese saying. Somebody made it up and decided to put an ancient mythic spin on it and attributed it to the Chinese. And now, with the economy as it is, it has taken on a political life of its own.  And you probably thought it really was a Chinese saying. TLT did, until she did the research.

An unexpected Christmas visitor also brings in an apparently seductive pseudo-mythic script of his own in  Roland Schimmelpfennig's Winter Solstice. Written in 2013 and first produced two years later, it is now a new Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company co-production in a translation by David Tushingham.

It's a snowy Christmas Eve and the household of a German middle-class, liberal couple Albert (Dominic Rowan) and Bettina (Laura Rogers) is in minor disarray as they argue over her mother's arrival -  she wants to cut her off, he feels caught in the middle.

Still, she's the only grandmother of their one child - little Marie - and Corinna (Kate Fahy) is now in the house with the "old-fashioned, wealthy, middle-class doorbell" asking for soap and putting on her new. expensive dress of dubious origins.

With a set by Lizzie Clachan, it's doesn't seem so much a household as an office with the remnants of a party or a rehearsal room for a table read of a script.

Long meeting tables with melamine tops and office chairs serve as the skeleton of scenery. And we get not only the dialogue but narration in the form of  film script action and character description.

Albert is a pill-popping publisher, sociologist and author who has graduated from writing books  on the Holocaust to short story fiction. Bettina is a lithe, ambitious film maker. Inevitably it is Albert who loses out during the play for we learn Bettina has become a bit of a know-all who no longer reads his books - "she knows what's in them or she thinks she knows".

Corinna's apparent previous chance encounter on a broken-down, unheated train ushers in Rudolph (Nicholas Le Prevost), a distinguished elderly doctor who, uh-oh, comes from Paraguay.

He plays Chopin and Bach beautifully and speaks with sweeping gravitas of unity and community to the rapt Corinna, Bettina and their artist friend Konrad (Milo Twomey).  The latter, it turns out, is dependent on and in debt to Albert whose voice becomes diminished over time.

Directed by Ramin Grey, the juxtaposition of narration and dialogue with the movement swinging diagonally like clockhands makes for a mostly perky script, sparking off humour. The performances are taut and precise but at nearly two hours played straight through, there are nevertheless moments in the latter stages when there is a fall-off and its just words whizzing by.

For our English ears, there was a touch of the JB Priestley about the situation - the parable of the stranger entering the household, the eventual fracturing of time and all save for bookish Albert (except someone has sat on his reading glasses!) developing rhinoceros hides as Rudolph's not-so-subtle fascist agenda emerges.

Except how does one differentiate what's in Albert's mind - after all, Rudolph seems to have a Baron Munchausen youthfulness - bristling with hostility and pharmaceuticals and what's a threat? What's improvisation and what are on-the-hoof changes and what is deliberately thought out? And could it all lead to the same dangerous outcome? As Bettina tensely remarks at the beginning, there's always someone who is out to change the script.

We could have done with it being shorter and some of the allusions being, well, a bit less cryptic and secretive. A divided Germany, post World War Two and during the Cold War, developed a unique psychological take on its past, some of it imposed by occupying countries. This play, we think, tries to bring the story up to date as a fresh screen-led generation is more and more distant from those world-shattering traumas.  An amber/green light for a play which serves to show us we live, of course, in interesting times. 

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